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Religious expression

Lessons from the chocolate Jesus controversy

Just in time for Easter, a New York gallery unveiled a giant, naked, chocolate Jesus suspended from an invisible cross.

Wags dubbed it the "immaculate confection." Protesters protested, and the exhibit was canceled - perhaps because the gallery space was on the ground floor of a hotel, and the owners didn't want Google to cough up reviews like "good continental breakfast, clean room, stench of blasphemy floating through the halls like the dead ghost of a brimstone cigar."

It's Religious Icon Art Controversy No. 20134. Let's see what we've learned from this one.

On the one hand, artistic controversies are heartening; they remind us that art does matter and that there are standards - even if we sense them only when their daily violation seems more enthusiastic than usual. On the other hand, most of the controversies are overreactions about underachievements. Is that the case here?

The artist, Cosimo Cavallaro - and with a jaunty, continental name like that, you'd better be an artist - is notable for other works, few of which deal with religious matters. His Web site ( showcases his sculptures and photographs, and old-line aesthetes looking for proof of modern art's irredeemable slide will find a few pieces of supporting evidence.

He smothered the interior of a hotel room with cheese, for example. Very witty.

His site also displays a series of photographs of fish in toilet bowls. At the risk of offending the reader, let's just say that the fish have company.

And his site also features a photograph of the letters VIP spelled out with a material often found on streets frequented by dogs and their owners.

Given his preferred materials, the choice of chocolate for the statue seems wise.

But is it blasphemous? The nakedness isn't unusual; in Renaissance painting, the infant Jesus was frequently shown very, very naked. Art historian Leo Steinberg's 1983 work The Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art and in Modern Oblivion asserted that the display of the infant's genitals was meant to establish the true humanity of Jesus - not a Ken doll molded from divine clay, but a man-child with all the parts. This isn't to suggest that a naked Jesus couldn't be fashioned with blasphemous intent; it just means there's substantial precedent.

There's the issue of the chocolate, of course - but unless there's something inherently holy about marble, the medium shouldn't matter. In fact, the medium actually is the message. Easter Sunday's secular twin celebrates the arrival of foil-wrapped bunnies and pastel eggs, after all. A pastor might spend a pre-Easter sermon ruminating about how one version has overtaken the other in the modern world; an artist might well reinterpret the crucifixion in chocolate and foil as a way to protest this secular interpretation.

Cosimo Cavallaro says he's a Roman Catholic. He calls his new work Sweet Jesus. "The purpose of Sweet Jesus," he told CNN, "is for me to portray that iconic image - with a taste."

One might be forgiven for regarding his motives with a jot of skepticism, but one would also be churlish to dismiss them out of hand. Unless you believe there's one way, and one way only, to express religious devotion.

Would he have put up a chocolate Muhammad? He says it's irrelevant, because Islam is not his faith. Perhaps. But no one would dare put up a chocolate Muhammad, and if someone were foolish enough to try, you wouldn't see it on TV, lest there be riots in countries half a world away, with the usual signs demanding beheadings and death. Some nutbar might drive a car into a factory in Hershey, Pa.

Cavallaro's work did generate protests; there were even death threats, according to the event's organizers. Never mind that the number of people killed by Christian militants seems rather scant - and if you think Timothy McVeigh was a Christian extremist, you need to think again. (Google it!, as Rosie O'Donnell doth forcefully command.)

Nevertheless, those threats will convince many that an army of domestic Christianists is a threat to America equal to any "threat" posed by radical Islam - an opinion neatly underscored by the gallery's director, who described the protests as a Christian fatwa.

Interesting choice of words. It's almost as if he searched for a Christian equivalent, and nothing came to mind.